MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
I began my career writing films for cable and video which require scripts with casts limited to around 15 speaking roles for budgetary reasons. Every speaking role costs a producer a *minimum* of around $1,500 a day (once you've paid SAG scale, meals, costumes, insurance, health & pension, and all of those other hidden costs of employment) - and as much as $35 *million* if they're stars! Even the small roles add up. And fewer characters in your story means more time spent on developing each of the characters you have. More time for the audience to get to know the character, and less confusion between them ("Is that Karl or Sam? Her husband or that gardener?").
I read a friend's script that had over thirty characters in a 100 page script... You do the math! Each character gets about 3 pages! Hardly enough time to get to know and care about them. Limiting your cast actually improves the script's quality. Even the past few years when I've been writing big budget scripts, I try to limit my cast so that I can spend more time developing each character and more time really digging in to character issues. I always ask myself: What is the purpose of this character? Is he/she/it necessary?
I couldn't wait to see ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO when it came out. I'm a fan of Robert Rodriguez - saw EL MARIACHI *twice* in it's limited theatrical run. The first time was all about the legend of the $7k budget raised by being a human guinea pig for medical experiments. The film was so funny and action packed and exciting and cool that I just had to see it again. You know, there's no ticket discount for movies made for $7k - they cost just as much to see as a Hollywood film that cost $100 million. But this little film was more entertaining that most big Hollywood blockbusters. When the "sequel" DESPERADO came out, I was probably first in line. And it was even better than EL MARIACHI. Not just because of Salma Hayak and Antonio Banderas and Danny Trejo, but it had a million really cool scenes and just as much heart as the first film. That bar shoot out that plays out like a big stunt-filled dance number and ends up with Antonio and the bad guy searching the floor of a gun that still has bullets in it... and gun after gun is empty. It's exciting, suspenseful... and funny all at the same time.
So when Robert Rodriguez made the third film in the series, and Script Magazine asked if I would be interested in interviewing him, I jumped at the chance. It was a great interview (hey, he owns a copy of my book - cool) and he told me about all of these cool scenes - like the shoot out in the church where they have to be quiet, and The Blind Gunslinger and... well, I just couldn't wait to see the film!
But ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO would end up a huge let down, a film with enough characters and plots for a dozen films... but not enough *character* and enough *plot* for one film. It's all over the place - which makes it nowhere. A confusing and uninvolving story - no clear POV, no emotional stakes (just revenge - no dilemma involved), and is a rehash of EL MARIACHI and DESPERADO (two better films). Even the shoot outs are boring compared to DESPERADO - the cool ideas (blind gunman with a seeing eye boy) were never really used. The film is all surface - it never digs into characters or story... because there just isn't enough time. The film is too ambitious.
CAST OF THOUSANDS
The 102 minute ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO is the story of...
CIA Agent Sands (Johnny Depp) - Our lead character. CIA Agent who believes Mexico is under his control. Sands plays a different "character" for everyone he meets, but he *always* orders the same dish - puerco pibil - in every restaurant. When he tastes the *perfect* version of that dish, he kills the cook. Sands has an extra arm he uses as a decoy, and some other weird tricks. Sands pays Bellini $10k to find an assassin to kill General Marquez *after* Marquez has assassinated the President of Mexico. Sands also has a plan to bring down the Barillo Drug Cartel, and needs a man to be bait for the cartel, and a "stalking horse" cop or authority figure to do the actual dirty work of taking down the cartel. Sands is a puppet master, and his strings lead to many people and plots and places.
Bellini (Cheech Marin) - First character we see in the film. A one-eyed informant who will sell any information to anyone. He takes Sands $10k and has the perfect assassin to take out Marquez, a guy only known as El Mariachi, or "L" for short. "L" is the baddest gunman who ever lived, but the Barillo Drug Cartel has a price on his head for killing a bunch of their guys. Bellini has all kinds of secrets for sale, and tries to sell material to Sands, the FBI, the Barillo Cartel, and anyone else with money. He has a secret place to hide information - in his empty eye socket behind his eye patch. Bellini ends up out clevering himself and making deals with all sides that end up getting him killed.
Cucuy (Danny Trejo) - Muscle for hire who puts together a team to go to the Guitar Village and capture "L". He's never treated with respect, and hates it. Sands threatens him, and every time he hires on for some new muscle gig by one of the characters, they treat him poorly. Cucuy and his crew to the Guitar Village and get into a massive gunfight with "L"...
"L", El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) - Our lead character. Wait, I thought *Sands* was our lead character? Retired gunslinger and badass, living a peaceful existence in the Guitar Village where he tests guitars. Like all action heroes, he's given up his violent past and never wants to use a gun again. This is the third film in the series, so we know how many people he's shot - hundreds! That also makes it confusing that Sands seems to be our lead character for much of the movie, because this guy was the lead in the first two films. There's only one person who could get "L" to pick up a gun again - General Marquez, who killed "L"s pregnant wife years ago. Her death is the reason why he retired years ago. Cucuy takes "L" to Agent Sands who offers him a chance to kill General Marquez *after* he kills the President, and Sands guarantees that the new President will pardon "L" for all crimes so that he can lead a normal life. Oh, and just to tie all of this together in some weird way, "L" is on the top of the Barillo Drug Cartel's hit list, so he is also connected to Sands' other plan, too.
Carolina (Salma Hayak) - "L"s pregnant dead wife - a carryover character from the second film where she worked in a bookstore and was the female lead. So we're pretty sure she's the female lead here - which is confusing because we're getting all of these lead characters! Too many Chiefs and, well, too many Indians, too. After hooking up with "L", Carolina became a badass killing machine who helped him take down drug dealers. After killing a whole bunch of Barillo's guys, they get married and it's true love and then they are attacked on their wedding night and have a whole damned movie's worth of story in a flashback that ends with General Marquez killing her. Wait! I thought she was the female lead? All of this happened *before the movie even starts* which only adds to the confusion. She dies in a flashback!
FBI Agent Jorge (Ruben Blades) - Our lead character... what? Well, he's just as much the lead character as Sands or "L"! How confusing! A retired FBI Agent who was always trying to bring down the Barillo Drug Cartel, but could never get the proof. Now he's living in Mexico and following Barillo and his guys everywhere, trying to get the evidence that will bring down the Cartel. Years ago, Barillo killed Jorge's partner, and part of this whole thing is revenge. Jorge has his old FBI ID and pretends to still be an agent. When Sands offers to help him bring down Barillo, he kicks his own revenge plan into high gear.
Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke) - American drug dealer guy who hangs with Barillo. Billy has a pet chihuahua that is his only real friend... but Barillo *hates* dogs, so Billy is always hiding the dog up his coat sleeve or somewhere else on his person, and there's always the fear that Barillo will spot the dog and kill it. Barillo is blackmailed by Agent Jorge to collect evidence and information on Barillo - so it's more than just his dog that he's worried about.
Barillo (Willem Dafoe) - Our lead character... WTF? But there's kind of a SCARFACE story in here about Barillo, who has risen to the top of the drug cartel and is now a folk hero. He has programs to feed the poor, wants to keep the country stable so that his workers and their families will do their best work. He is a renaissance man... but has two problems: "L" who has killed all of his good Lieutenants, leaving him with a bunch of dopes... and the American FBI which seems to be closing in on him. Barillo is hiring a double for a face swap kind of thing so that the double can get killed or arrested and Barillo will be able to walk away a free man. Oh, and I'd have to watch the film a couple more times, but I think part of Sands' plan is to have Barillo's men kill "L" after he has killed Marquez and after Marquez has killed the President. This film has so many characters and plots you need to constantly be taking notes or you'll get lost. Even after seeing it a bunch of times, there are some plot threads I just didn't have time to jot down!
FBI Agent Ajendrez (Eva Mendes) - Our lead character. What? Another one! She's a rookie on the FBI's team that is going to take down Barillo. Even though she's tough and hot and knows her way around guns (take that any way you want) the FBI isn't taking her seriously, nor are her macho male fellow agents. She's like Demi Moore in that female Navy S.E.A.L. movie. She keeps pushing and is eventually put on the Barillo team- on the front lines! This is great for her! She can prove she's tough. Hey, but there's another side to Ajendrez... she is Agent Sand's girlfriend! They have hot moneky-love-sex! And he gives her information that he hopes she will take back to the FBI - that Barillo is *funding* Gerneral Marquez plans to assassinate the President! Barillo is paying Marquez $20 million to carry out the assassination and coup! And Sands' plan is to let Marquez kill the President and have "L" kill Marquez and have Barillo kill "L" and then grab the $20 million for himself... and Ajendrez can come along with him and help spend it if she likes. Maybe she will, but what Sands *doesn't know* is that FBI Agent Ajendrez is not just any rookie FBI agent, she's Barillo's deep cover plant within the agency who is feeding him information on what the FBI is up to and helping him avoid capture. Oh, and she's also Barillo's *daughter*! Wow, imagine having to keep all of those lies straight!
General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) - Has this plan for a military coup. He is going to kill the President and take over the country with his army of loyal soldiers. Sure, he's being paid $20 million by Barillo, but Marquez would have done it for free. He's one of those power mad military guys. Oh, and he also wants to kill "L" because his pregnant wife Carolina actually shot him before he killed her. This guy is just a power mad violent dude with his own army, every movie needs at least one, and rom-coms need a couple.
The Mexican President (Pedro Armendariz) - Seems like a nice guy. He thinks Barillo and his gang are ruining his country and has vowed to arrest and convict them all, even though many people in the country *like* Barillo or are at least dependent on him for employment. He's going to do this big press conference thing at this big colorful festival and make a big speech about eradicating the Cartel. Even after he hears about the plot by Marquez to assassinate him and take power, he decides tio give the speech anyway. Like I said, a nice guy.
The President's Assistant (Julio Oscar Mechoso) - Seriously, one of the greatest characters in this film. This little pipsqueak of a guy who follows the President around and makes sure that everything is perfect and that the President gets whatever he wants. Sands calls him, "The man behind the Prince". He worries that the President's strong anti-drug policy will not get him elected next time around, but can't get the President to change his policy. So, maybe it's better if someone else is President? He gives Agent Sands all of the information on where the President will give his speech so that it can be passed on to all of the players so that everyone can assassinate someone by the end of this film... then promptly throws up. He is this quiet little guy behind the scenes that is just as much a puppet master as Sands... only he can't stomach all of the betrayals.
Mariachi Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) - "L" comes to his two pals, who were played by different actors in the second film... and one of the Mariachi guys in the second film was the lead Mariachi in the first film... just to add to any confusion. Anyway, "L" comes to get some help in the multiple assassination thing, and his two buddies try to talk him out of it and then want to come along and give their support and be loyal sidekicks. Mariachi Lorenzo is a complete mercenary who will kill anyone for money. If there's money involved, he's in. Because he's all about the money, "L" isn't sure he can trust him or depend on him... even though they are best friends and have this long history that I forgot to write down notes on.
Mariachi Fideo (Marco Leonardi) - A drunk who "L" isn't sure he can trust or depend on... even though they are best friends and have this long history that I forgot to write down notes on... but I did write this line of dialogue from him, "I don't think, I drink."
The Doctor (Miguel Couturier) - Hey, remember how Barillo was going to get one of those face swap operations to that he could sneak away while some other dude gets either caught or killed? Well, this is the doctor who specializes in that stuff when he's not doing back alley abortions or removing bullets from bank robbers. He probably also has some nice story that becomes a subplot and motivates him to do this crazy operation... but I was tired by this point and just jotted down that he was the doctor who did the operation. I think he also gets killed, but I don't remember.
Belasco (Bernard Hacker) - The duplicate. He's the guy who looks kinda like Barillo, and his name also starts with a B, making this even more confusing. Anyway, he's been in all of the Barillio scenes along the way, learning to act like Barillo and talk like him and move like him and play the piano like him and everything else. Again, he's been in all of those scenes, so I know he has some story and subplot, but I just jotted down "Duplicate guy" in my notes.
The Boy (Tony Valdes) - Okay, there is always a kid in every Mariachi movie. This time around, the kid is Agent Sands' sidekick, and is in a huge chunk of the movie. Not another lead, but a sidekick. He sells Chicklets gum and wants a friend, and Sands ends up being that friend. When everything goes wrong in Sands' various plans and people are shooting each other in the street and sands gets his eyes blown out and becomes a Blind Gunman, like those Blind Swordsmen and Blind Gunmen in other movies, he can't see in the middle of the big shoot out, and the Boy ends up being his eyes and helping him aim at the bad guys. Without this kid, Sands would be helpless! So even though he is only a sidekick in the film, he's a really important character and gets a bunch of screen time and is a critical part of the big shoot out and... well, he's really close to being another lead character!
102 DIVIDED BY 17 = 6
That's 17 *main* characters! And (unfortunately) about 17 subplots, but no real plot. Who is the hero? It can't be Antonio - he disappears for large chunks of the movie. It can't be Depp - we don't care about him and don't really know what his plan is (it's so damned confusing) and we have no reason to want him to achieve his goal. There are just too many lead characters! And guess what? I left out at least a quarter of the subplots, and never got to all of the double and triple and quadruple and quintuple crosses at the end! Oh, and there are *supporting* characters in all of this, too - Agent Sands has a regular Taxi driver who takes him around town. Agent Ajendrez has two guys she works with at the FBI and both have the hots for her, so there's this whole love triangle subplot I forgot to mention (sorry) that actually is part of her plot. Barillo has a problem with second in command guys and goes through a bunch of them... Oh, and there's a bunch of other subplots I forgot. IMDB lists 37 speaking roles!
102 divided by 37 = 2 minutes and 45 seconds per character!
A good film has a story we can understand - usually about someone wants something, but has to fight to get it. That's a basic story. Rocky wants to go ten rounds with the Champ. Dirk Diggler wants to be loved (he gets a lot of sex, but what he really wants is non-sexual love, like from a family). When you look at a good film, it takes a simple story and explores it. Really digs in. Instead of going wide (subplots) it goes deep. Characters have to make tough decisions in order to get what they want, they have to make sacrifices. They have to confront their own demons. The fight for what they want is how we learn about their characters.
Divide 17 into the running time of the film and you get an idea of how much time we spend with each character... not enough time to get very deep at all! Add to that the confusion created when each character seems to have their own plot, and many of the characters get back stories and some get flashbacks, and none of them are who they seem - so it's almost as if there are 34 characters: the characters as they present themselves plus the characters behind that false front who have some sort of scheme. Agent Sands (Depp) is almost a different character to each person he encounters! This would have been a fascinating character if we only had enough time to hang out with him - instead he comes off very confusing. You'd have to see the film a dozen times or more to get past the barrage of characters and plots and drink in all of Sands' character.
Which is oddly what happened, as a result of so many false starts writing this script tip! I dashed off a rough version of this tip right after seeing the movie... but when it came time to expand it many years ago, I could not remember enough about the very confusing film, so I rented it and saw it again... then I got sidetracked, and when I sat down to write the time a while later the film had reverted to a jumble of characters and subplots in my memory! When the DVD came on sale, I bought it... and have watched that DVD about a dozen times over the years, starting to write this tip but getting sidetracked. Over those dozen times, I've grown fond of the film - even though it has so much going on in it I can never keep all of the subplots and characters straight in my head a few days after seeing it! Too many characters, each with their own separate plot and their own scheme and their own double crosses... how can you be expected to keep track off all of this stuff?
My friend John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER) says that "Screenplays are simple stories about complicated people". You don't want a story so complicated that the audience needs to take notes, and you don't want so many characters that the audience needs flash cards or something to keep track of them all. You want to dig deeper into character instead of going wider. It's the quality of the character and the depth of the character that is important, not the quantity of characters. A script like ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO or the one I read with 30 speaking roles fighting for their place in the spotlight are *not* better than a script where we spend more time and learn more about a handful of people.
The key to condensing your cast is to take each character and ask yourself: "Why is this character important? What is their function?" Those Waiters and Cab Drivers will instantly disappear. Other characters may be tricky. One of the 30 speaking role in my friend's script was "necessary" because she gave the protagonist a critical piece of information. My question: why didn't the protagonist discover this bit of information on his own? Not only does this lower the cast count, it boosts the protagonist's involvement in the story.
Which is a bizarre side effect of limiting your cast: Every character HAS to be critical to the story. If there's a way to tell the story without that character, delete them! When I write a script for a cable network where I will be limited (by budget) to 15 speaking roles, I take a ruled 5x8 card (15 lines) and jot down my speaking characters. When I run out of lines, I have to either remove a character from the card or reuse a character. That way, I make sure that EVERY character is part of the story... not just a dead end role. And the great side effect of this is that I have to bring characters back - I have to make sure that character on page 17 isn't just some walk on who does his job and we never see him again, that character must be critical to the story... and come back. All of the characters must be part of the story... not just some background character, some extra, that I gave a line to.
Are all of your characters part of the story? If you can remove any character and it doesn't change the outcome of the story - get rid of them! They are wasting valuable screen time that would be better used by your protagonist or some other important character.
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ADVICE FROM 1920!
*** VINTAGE #1: HOW TO WRITE PHOTOPLAYS *** - For Kindle!
Screenwriting books have been around as long as films have. This series reprints vintage screenwriting books with a new introduction and history, plus new articles which look at how these lessons from almost 100 years ago apply to today’s screenplays. Anita Loos book is filled with information which still applies.
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I WRITE PICTURES!
*** VISUAL STORYTELLING *** - For Kindle! (exclusive)
Show Don't Tell - but *how* do you do that? Here are techniques to tell stories visually! Using Oscar Winning Films and Oscar Nominated Films as our primary examples: from the first Best Picture Winner "Sunrise" (1927) to the Oscar Nominated "The Artist" (which takes place in 1927) with stops along the way Pixar's "Up" and Best Original Screenplay Winner "Breaking Away" (a small indie style drama - told visually) as well as "Witness" and other Oscar Winners as examples... plus RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 200 pages!
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*** YOUR IDEA MACHINE *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to find great ideas! Your screenplay is going to begin with an idea. There are good ideas and bad ideas and commercial ideas and personal ideas. But where do you find ideas in the first place? This handbook explores different methods for finding or generating ideas, and combining those ideas into concepts that sell. The Idea Bank, Fifteen Places To Find Ideas, Good Ideas And Bad Ideas, Ideas From Locations And Elements, Keeping Track Of Your Ideas, Idea Theft - What Can You Do? Weird Ways To Connect Ideas, Combing Ideas To Create Concepts, High Concepts - What Are They? Creating The Killer Concept, Substitution - Lion Tamers & Hitmen, Creating Blockbuster Concepts, Magnification And The Matrix, Conflict Within Concept, Concepts With Visual Conflict, Avoiding Episodic Concepts, much more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
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*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!
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